Oct. 20, 2011
BY JOHN PAINTER
Tennessee fans can close their 2011 golf calendar in a big way this weekend when the Mercedes-Benz SEC/Pac-12 Challenge starts Friday at Holston Hills Country Club.
The Lady Vols are one of 23 teams competing in a field that features 15 squads ranked by Golfstat.com among the nation's top 25. Tennessee head coach Judi Pavón calls this year's field the best local event outside the Knoxville Open of the Nationwide Tour.
"We've had strong Mercedes fields before, but we're really excited to have all the West Coast teams and all the SEC teams back," Pavón said. "This is definitely the strongest field we've ever hosted."
Seven SEC squads and eight from the Pac-12 are included in the top 25, headlined by top-ranked and defending NCAA champion UCLA. Auburn sits at No. 2, followed by No. 4 LSU and No. 6 Alabama, with Vanderbilt, Arizona State, Washington and Southern California closing out the top 10.
Tennessee enters at No. 27 according to Golfstat.com after not having played with a completely healthy lineup in its three tournaments to date. The Lady Vols were sixth at their most recent event despite their best two players, Erica Popson and Nathalie Mansson, playing through injuries.
"This week, we are playing with our strongest lineup of the season," Pavón said. "Whether Nat and Erica are 100 percent, I don't know. But we're a very good team and it's really going to come down to our mental games and how we handle it."
Surgery is scheduled for immediately after this weekend's final fall tournament. Popson expects to be ready when the spring season begins in late February.
"I've been dealing with it for a while now," Popson said. "It's something that just needs to be taken care of so I can continue my career here at UT.
"As long as I can stay mentally tough, I feel I can compete pretty well. I competed decently last week, finishing top-10, so that wasn't too bad for not getting to practice for a week. But I want to be able to defend this year. We will see how it goes."
Pavón says this weekend is an excellent test for how the two leagues stack up against one another. And in addition to the team and individual competitions, the Mercedes-Benz Challenge also features a competition between the two power conferences in women's golf.
"We were going to use just the top three teams from each league, but we didn't feel that was a fair representation of the entire strength of the conferences," Pavón said. "It will be interesting to see how that competition ends up."
Tennessee begins play Friday at 10 a.m. on the No. 1 tee. Pavón penciled Chessey Thomas, AJ Newell and Sara Monberg into the lineup along with Mansson and Popson. Two other Lady Vols, Leigh Henderson and Kaitlyn Rohrback, are competing this week as individuals.
UT is paired with UCLA and Alabama, and Pavón welcomes the head-to-head challenge for her squad.
"We've got to play with those teams and we've got to see what we need to do to get better," she said. "Hopefully, we will at least be competitive with them.
"It's a tough field; we know it's a tough field. But we can compete when we are at our best. It will be a great gauge."
"We don't have pink uniforms but we will be wearing pink caps," she said.
"On the greens, that's where the tournament is going to be determined," Pavón said. "It's all about who putts well.
"Hopefully, our knowledge of the greens and our familiarity with being out here, knowing which holes really break and which are the fastest, will help us out this week. We love this course."